“Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”
-Jean Jacques Rousseau
Written in 1914, The Trial examines a series of unfortunate happenings in the life of a bank official named Josef K. who gets arrested abruptly on his thirtieth birthday. The protagonist finds it absurd that no one cares to specify the nature of his crime let alone elaborate it. The novel throws light on several issues like civil rights violation, corruption in bureaucracy, authoritarianism and the absurd human condition seeking answers to the existential dilemma.
On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, the character wakes up only to find himself being detained for a crime unrevealed to him. Starting from the policemen and supervisor to the lawyers and judges at the court, the authority fails to give an explanation for the preposterous arrest. Arresting the accused without specifying the offence is clearly an act of civil rights violation. As a concerned citizen who is aware of the “decent laws” of his “free nation” where everything was at peace, Josef K. is taken aback by this bizarre episode and is left with several questions on the authenticity of the accusation. Besides the unreasonable detention, K’s patience is tested by incapable lawyers and officials forcing him to lead a battle on his own against the injustice.
On some levels, the implications of K’s arrest reminds of Orwell’s infamous phrase from 1984, “Big brother is watching you.” The citizens could be under continuous observation wherein the authority keeps an eye on the possible threats to their oppressive system as evident in the words of Mrs.Grubach, “You have been arrested, but it’s not in the same way as when they arrest a thief…” It is also mentioned that he is “left free” to go to work and do things even under arrest, a situation no better than that of the modern man seemingly content with his life yet unaware of the invisible state of surveillance that lurks around.
The whole sequence of arrest and later procedures is almost dream-like. It is possible to read the entire novel as a story happening inside K’s head for the trial merely begins when he allows and ends when he decides so. It is he who rings the bell in the morning that leads him to receive the policeman, though unknowingly. The absurd episodes can be occurrences inside his head that stem from a conflicted psychological state owing to an existential crisis exacerbated by the bureaucratic red tape.
The fact that K. was arrested “without having done anything wrong” points to the shifting notions of wrongdoings and right doings in an ever-changing world. Like everything else, man-made constructs of crime and justice have also been evolving with the progress of mankind. Slavery was legal in most countries for years until it was declared inhumane and unethical by abolition acts. In such a fast-paced modern world, it won’t take much time to rewrite definitions and codes of conduct. Similarly, the nature of K’s crime can relatively be a new one, yet to be perceived as a “crime” among the common populace.
At a time when subjects were targeted in the name of faith and religious identity, Josef K. can be observed as yet another victim of witch-hunting by the state. Considering the author’s Jewish descent, one can find hints of anti- Semitism that had been rampant in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. The novel could be a prophetic vision predicting the Holocaust if the unspecified crime of Josef K. meant nothing but his Jewish identity.
In short, Josef K’s arrest and its consequences corroborate the famous quote by Rousseau, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”